“The photograph itself doesn’t interest me.
I want only to capture a minute part of reality.”
— Henri Cartier Bresson
Often I see the portrait in people’s houses or offices, or sometimes in magazines or books, a photo almost sixty years old that captured an image of men eating lunch on a girder over New York City in 1932. Yet, I see what others never can: the days and weeks and months surrounding that ensnared moment, and I see a space that pulses in the gray mist of cloud. I am now of age to understand that seeing is a selective act anyway, that nothing is truly visible to us at all, other than in some intersection of time and memory, shallow imprints in the sands of what we call experience. None of us can ever prove that any one event has truly happened in the exact way we have perceived it, for perception is the slide of the world around us as we spin on its surface and imagine we are still.
Even now I remember the shuddering in my legs that first day in March of 1931, the giddy disbelief at my journey away from the earth, away from the streets of a struggling New York, a dark-jeweled metropolis in a struggling nation of beaten-down cities. I hadn’t expected the overwhelming predominance of space that swallowed me on the morning of my first ascent, the morning I was resurrected from among the desperate job seekers far below. I hadn’t understood that the cost of my transformation would be such a persistent struggle against the vertiginous danger that spread itself out beneath me, a languid gray creature waiting to be fed.
None of us can ever prove that any one event has truly happened in the exact way we have perceived it, for perception is the slide of the world around us as we spin on its surface and imagine we are still.
I had imagined that working on the then fifty-second floor of this new Rockefeller building would involve precarious heights around a core of something solid to which I could cling. I had pictured an actual floor for one thing, a rudimentary plane of concrete from which we would work, our base. Instead, I stepped out into the framework of struts, cantilevers and beams connected by a series of heavy planks, doubled and tripled up in places for the storage of equipment and tools, a web of filaments preparing for the structure to follow. We were the pioneers leading the charge into the sky, the hazards inherent in our point position part of the reason we had been given jobs in a jobless age. When I stepped out of the clanking elevator onto a thin mat of planking, I was immediately struck by a sense of utter disconnection from the earth. Yet, men strode across narrow joists as if they were strolling along a beach, shouting at each other, cursing the early morning and the heavy weight of drink in their veins, seemingly unperturbed by the towering elements they occupied.
A hundred times that day I almost gave up and retreated to the streets, but the knowledge of my sisters’ hungry faces, my mother’s pellucid skin, my father’s baffled eyes, all kept me pinned to the gray sky above the city. Somehow, I managed to prevail over the horrors of that day, and then those of a week, and though I came close to pitching to my death on more times than I wish to remember, I stayed. In the coming months I became part of the strangest family I had ever known. I was Will Sharpton, and I belonged to a family of men who learned to perform as though they knew no fear and whose home inched ever further into the sky each day.
Santini was the one I knew least at first. Quiet, pale, a sapling with slender hands, a youth who did not laugh at the lewd jokes we engaged in to fill the days of fear. Yet, his eyes were large and intelligent, and when I drew him out, his smile and papery voice were things that seemed unsuited to the world at all, much less our world in which the bosses drove us recklessly to complete the project by the fall of 1932.
- Men on Beam at Rockefeller Center, 1932, Charles C. Ebbets.
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